Monday, August 9, 2021

Jamie Lee Boards a Terror Train; The Animals Have Their Day

Jamie Lee Curtis.
Terror Train (1980).  When a cruel college prank goes awry, its victim, Kenny, seemingly has a nervous breakdown. Three years later, the prank's perpetrators have become senior pre-med students, one of whom has hired a steam-driven train for a masquerade party. After almost everyone has boarded the train, a student named Ed is secretly murdered. The killer rolls the corpse under the caboose and dons the disguise—a Groucho Marx mask—worn by Ed. Thus, all the party attendees think that “Groucho” is Ed…and not a revenge-minded homicidal psycho.

The killer in disguise.
The Canadian-made Terror Train was one of the first slasher films made in the wake of Halloween’s box office success. Helmed by veteran Roger Spottiswoode, it’s an efficient thriller that generates a reasonable amount of tension. A key plot point has the killer donning the disguise of his latest victim. It also features an effective twist at the climax, which—while not original—nevertheless comes across as a mild surprise.

In her third "slasher film", following Halloween (1978) and Prom Night (1979), Jamie Lee Curtis stars as a surprisingly tough heroine. Her character may regret her role in the ill-fated prank and even feel sympathy towards Kenny, but she's willing to take on the killer at the end. The supporting cast is stronger than usual for this type of film with Ben Johnson as the train conductor, Hart Bochner as a manipulative student, and David Copperfield in his only dramatic role as...a magician. If actress D.D. Winters looks familiar, that's because she became Prince's protégé Vanity.

Terror Train isn't an undiscovered gem. It's an average thriller made on a modest budget, but by people that know how to make this sort of thing.

Christopher George as Steve.
Day of the Animals (1977). When the Earth's ozone layer starts depleting, it has an inexplicable effect on both domestic and wild animals living in high altitudes. It transforms them into bloodthirsty killers!

That's bad news for a group of vacationers participating in a two-week wilderness trek through the mountains led by guides Steve (Christopher George) and Daniel (Michael Ansara). After the group fends off an attack by a single wolf, it begins to splinter. Matters get worse when one of the hikers, a bigoted executive (Leslie Nielsen) with a huge ego, convinces some of the group to follow him instead of Steve. Pretty soon, the humans are fighting for their lives as they face mountain lions, bears, birds, snakes, wild dogs--and each other.

Leslie Nielsen.
Made two years after Jaws (1975), Day of the Animals is often mentioned with other ecologically-themed films where Mother Nature rebels against humans (e.g., Grizzly, Frogs, Food of the Gods, The Pack, etc.). That's a shame, because it's better than those drive-in efforts; indeed, for most of its running time, Day of the Animals is a tidy suspense film with solid acting. 

Unfortunately, it starts to unravel when Leslie Nielsen's bizarre executive strips off his shirt and starts acting like a mad man. Sure, Nielsen has a field day overacting and spouts some memorable dialogue (to a young boy: "You little cockroach! You gonna tell me about survival?"). However, his performance ruins the second half of the movie (for a more serious take on a similar character, see Sands of the Kalahari).

Lynda Day George and hair.
The rest of the cast acquit themselves satisfactorily and it's fun to see: Lynda Day George (Chris's wife) as a reporter whose blonde hair always looks perfectly coiffed; Ruth Roman as an overbearing mother; Richard Jaeckel as a well-meaning professor; Paul Mantee (Robinson Crusoe on Mars) as a former football player; and a young Andrew Stevens.

The animals prove to be adequate thespians, too, especially the bear and a pack of wild dogs that attack near the climax. The latter scene does leave one with a lingering question: Why are all the wild dogs in the pack German Shepherds?


  1. I didn't realize there was discussion of earth's thinning ozone layer in the 1970s. I'm off to do a little online research, which is something your thoughtful blog has encouraged me to do quite often.